English in China: Accent

One of the most disheartening things about English teaching in China is the way that gut instincts and what we call “first language interference” are allowed to interfere with education almost completely unfettered by awareness of what English actually is. The most glaring example of this is an obsession with “correct” pronunciation which all but destroys any hope of ever speaking the language fluently.

There is a common misconception here that there is something called “correct English pronunciation,” – a misconception that’s perfectly understandable when you know something about the Chinese languages. I say “languages” because by any definition Chinese is at least six or eight languages rather than dialects. The idea that they have many dialects of the same language comes from the fact that they use a single writing system. Characters represent words rather than sounds, so it’s possible to print a single text and have it read in any one of the different languages*. This has led to the idea that there is a single language which people speak with different accents, but this idea falls apart when you consider that even English could be written in Chinese script, though the word order would be fairly strange.
All these “dialects” are not equal, however. An adapted form of the Beijing dialect was selected as the national language, what we generally call “Mandarin” in English. This is the language of education and the media in China, so the vast majority of people will use a local language at home but will use Mandarin at school and watch Mandarin TV. Because it’s an artificially maintained language (and already quite different to what modern Beijingers speak) there is a very clear line as to what is correct and what is incorrect.
I should add to this the fact that Chinese languages are tonal. This means that what sounds like a single sound to an English speaker can represent four (or sometimes five) different sounds to a Chinese speaker. A famous example of this is the sound ‘ma’ – speak with a flat tone and it means ‘mother’, a rising tone and it means ‘numb’, a falling tone and it means ‘scold’ a falling-then-rising tone and it means ‘horse’ and with a high unstressed tone it turns the sentence into a question. You can imagine the trouble you can get into if you get these tones wrong – not just embarrassment but complete incomprehensibility – so it’s vitally important that Mandarin be spoken accurately. Pronunciation is therefore ruthlessly maintained, and since everyone learns Mandarin at school their impression of language learning is that much of it involves the correction of non-standard pronunciation.

Let’s skip to English now, a language you should be more familiar with. There’s American English, Australian English, Canadian English, British English…. but even these names hide an even greater variety – British English for example consists of a host of different accents / dialects. While we may sometimes have difficulty, in general native speakers of English can communicate with each-other without any major problems. You can even speak to Indians, Germans or Italians with strong accents who nevertheless are able to communicate in English with very little trouble. If there is such a thing as ‘Standard English’ then, it’s some kind of midpoint between all of these – a basic framework which we all build on. Getting that part right is essential, but copying an accent is somewhere close to pointless – it only makes you look like you’re trying to hide where you’re from.
On Thanksgiving Day** in 2009 I was press-ganged into judging a speech competition at a school here in Beijing. One of the contestants was an eleven-year-old girl, and when she opened her mouth I was surprised to find her talking like a character from a Jane Austen novel. Later her teacher came up and talked to me to ask whether I was impressed with how well she’d trained her. Maybe I should have told her off for wasting the girl’s time. I could have mentioned that accent is a marker of regional and class belonging in the UK, that people will judge you for being from the north or the south, for being upper class or working class. Maybe I should have reassured her that there’s nothing wrong with having a Chinese accent, so long as people can understand you, and that British people will be a lot more open to someone who sounds Chinese than someone who has adopted a strange, artificial, outdated accent as little more than an affectation. But I didn’t say any of these things because there was little point in upsetting her, and because the little girl seemed to enjoy pretending to be Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The area where I do try to change things is in my main job. Since I train English teachers I have an opportunity to try to convince them that pronunciation is only an issue so far as it prevents understanding, but this can be a hard nut to crack. One teacher came to me and asked which was the correct pronunciation – hat (rising) or hat (falling). “I can’t hear any difference” was not the answer he was looking for. The nadir came when I had a hard time persuading the other staff that we weren’t going to make teachers’ accents one of our main evaluation criteria. Even when I’ve explained all of the above the argument I faced was that schools will employ teachers with more “accurate” accents and we should prepare them for the job market. Perhaps even the schools themselves understand the matter, but parents certainly don’t, and since they are the ones paying the money, what they say goes.

It seems an insoluble situation as much as it is an unfortunate one. For my part I try to spread the word as much as I can (and now our company is starting franchises this may be quite a bit), but the scales are weighed heavily against me on this one, and for the foreseeable future students in China are going to waste a huge amount of time practicing the pronunciation of words they’ll never be able to put into realistic spoken English.

*This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s basically true.
**I had to make a speech telling them what Thanksgiving was all about – unfortunately being English I only have a vague idea, but I was able to bluff my way through it fairly well.

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